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Rates of Mental Health Symptoms and Substance Use in Santa Barbara High Schools


Teens in the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) took a survey last year to gauge their rates of substance use and mental health issues.

This survey, called the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), asked public school students statewide about a number of different issues in their lives: family connectedness, safety and crime at school, bullying, academics, mental health, substance use, and more.

Officials administered this anonymous, confidential survey to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students in the following schools:

  • Alta Vista Alternative High
  • Dos Pueblos Senior High
  • San Marcos Senior High
  • Santa Barbara Senior High

If your teen attends or attended one of these schools, the results of this survey might be helpful. Though they’re aggregated and participation at each school varied, the data provides a glimpse of the things your teen and their peers experience in their daily lives.

So, without further ado, here’s the data.

Santa Barbara Unified Students – Mental Health and Substance Use Statistics by Grade


 9th (%)10th (%)11th (%)12th (%)
Current alcohol or drug use*14172524
Current marijuana use¶10121717
Current binge drinking*561111
Very drunk or “high” 7 or more times, ever6101515
Been drunk or “high” on drugs at school, ever791210
Current cigarette smoking*2245
Current electronic cigarette use11131715
Experienced chronic sadness/hopelessness§27303229
Considered suicide§13141412
*in the past 30 days
§ within the past 12 months

Analyzing the Data

In general, rates of substance use and mental health issues increase with every grade—until grade 12. Within each school, juniors – rather than seniors – show the highest rates of alcohol/drug use, chronic sadness/hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. The rates dip slightly for seniors.

While the difference may not be statistically significant, we think several factors can explain the difference in rates between juniors and seniors.

First, most students agree junior year is more challenging academically. This could lead to high levels of stress, less sleep, and self-medication with drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, by senior year, many students have already been accepted to college and may be less concerned with academics. They may not feel as much stress or pressure to perform. This could explain why the survey shows lower rates of substance use and mental health issues than junior, though the differences – one to three percentage points – are modest.

That’s our theory – but we should remind you that it’s simply our take on the data. We encourage parents of all SBUSD students to read the report, discuss with friends, and determine whether our theory makes sense.

But that’s not all we think you should do. If you think your high school junior is at risk, there are steps you can take.

How to Help Your Teen With Mental Health or Drug Use Issues

The first thing you need to do is understand the symptoms of mental health disorders, like depression. The next thing you need know is what signs to watch for if you think your teen experiments with drugs.

First, let’s talk about mental health issues. The statistics above say that 32 percent of high school juniors in Santa Barbara experienced “chronic sadness or hopelessness.” Those are indicators of depression. Therefore, it’s important or you to understand what the clinical criteria for depression are – beyond someone casually saying something like, “FML I’m So Depressed.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Volume Five (DSM-V) what we call depression is known as major depressive disorder (MDD). The DSM-V defines MDD as “…an overwhelming feeling of sadness, isolation, and despair that last two weeks or longer at a time.”

Symptoms of major depressive disorder include:

  1. Persistent sad or empty mood
  2. Loss of interest in or inability to enjoy favorite hobbies, sports, and activities
  3. Persistent or daily crying
  4. Frequent or daily feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  5. Frequent or daily irritability, hostility, or anger
  6. Persistent feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  7. Decreased energy or fatigue
  8. Social isolation and impaired communication
  9. Persistent boredom and low energy
  10. Extreme restlessness and agitation
  11. Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  12. Major changes in sleeping patterns – insomnia or excessive sleeping
  13. Major changes in eating patterns – extreme loss or gain of weight
  14. Thinking about, talking about, or attempting suicide*
  15. Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches without a clear physical cause, which don’t respond to typical treatment

Pay special attention to the criteria: symptoms that “…last two weeks or longer at a time…” meet the threshold for clinical depression. If your teen has symptoms that go beyond the typical ups and downs of adolescence, the best thing you can do for them is to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional for a full evaluation. A psychiatrist or therapist can diagnose your teen if they have a mental health disorder and recommend treatment if needed.

Treatment typically involves outpatient therapy, in the initial stages. However, some teens require more intensive treatment, such as an intensive outpatient program (IOP), a partial hospitalization program (PHP), or a residential treatment center (RTC). The level of treatment your teen requires depends on the severity of the disorder.

To learn more about depression and treatment for depression in adolescence, please read our articles “Is My Teen Depressed or Just Moody?” and “Mental Health Awareness Month: Adolescent Depression and Anxiety.”

Next, let’s talk about what to watch for if you think your teen experiments with drugs.

Drug Use in Teens: Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of drug use include, but are not limited to:

  • Sudden change in personality
  • Sudden change in appearance
  • Unusual sleeping habits: too much or too little
  • Moodiness
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Abrupt drop in grades
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Missing medicine or valuables in home
  • Dramatic changes in behavior
  • Changes in friends or peer group
  • Withdrawal from favorite activities

All of these things may also be examples of typical teen behavior – including changes in peer groups and falling grades. However, these behavioral signs become significant when you observe them in combination with the following physical signs:

  • Glassy, red eyes (marijuana or alcohol)
  • Smell of alcohol or marijuana on breath, hair, clothes, or belongings
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Unsteady gait (walking)
  • Sudden loss or gain of weight
  • Sudden changes in sleep patterns: too much or too little
  • Changes in eating: too much or too little

If you see a combination of behavioral signs and physical signs, then there’s a chance your teen may be experimenting with alcohol or drugs like marijuana. The best thing you can do is take the same steps you would take for a teen who displays the signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder: arrange an appointment with a mental health professional for a full evaluation.

Treatment for drug addiction – now known as substance use disorder – is almost the same as treatment for a mental health disorder. If fact, they often go hand-in-hand: teens with a mental health disorder are more likely to develop a substance use disorder than teens who do not, and teens with a substance use disorder are more likely to have a mental health disorder than teens who do not.

In both cases, individualized, integrated treatment at a licensed adolescent treatment center can help teens manage their issues and live a full, productive life. Treatment typically involves individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy, experiential activities, and medication if necessary. During treatment, you and your teen will learn skills and techniques to bring balance to the home, and they will gain the confidence to live a life of their choosing.

The path to recovery starts with recognizing that a problem exists and taking those first steps to seek professional support. We recommend starting on the path to recovery as soon as possible – and doing it as a family, so that you can support one another fully as learn, grow, and move forward.

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